Friday, February 11, 2005

Bicycling Through Deep Sand

Mali is the perfect Post Modern vacation destination: Get off a plane from Paris to a land that literally doesn't have the infrastructure of Afghanistan in 1970, then go see tourist sights that only the Emperor in his New Clothes would have loved.

I talked to a fellow New Mexican who had just spent seven days trekking in the famous Dogon Country, supposedly the most amazing thing about West Africa. She said that scenically it was an amateur version of New Mexico, and that whatever mild cultural interest that was there was more than offset by the enervating heat and having to pay through the nose for every breath you took.

Given my straightened health condition, I decided to blow it off.

And as I became less malarial and more conscious I became aware of the Post Modern nature of Mac's Refuge. For instance, the NGO people never seem to do anything except attend conferences where they discuss what they should do. There was a snotty little rich French girl there who was nattering on about how the Imperialists had exploited West Africa, and seemed oblivious to the reality that there is nothing here to exploit.

The strangest thing though was this gay former Peace Corps guy who had come back, thanks to a grant he had written, so that he and two friends could go to some totally remote town and have the sixth graders spend a week using point and click cameras. Which they then had to give back.

Now it immediately occurred to me that said remote village would have probably preferred that the twenty thousand or so dollars involved be used to, say, improve the road, fix the school, add a phone line, buy a computer... But nobody at Mac's thought of that as a relevant question.

So it was time to move on. And Wednesday morning I got to the gare routiere bright and early so as to get to the town of Koro, where the bus left for Burkina Faso at two.

Except, of course, the minibus didn't leave until eleven, and then an hour along the road deteriorated to one of those ten mile an hour jobs, and I didn't get to Koro until four thirty.

Along the way I at least got to experience the incredible escarpment of the Dogon Country. Except it turned out to be a cliff about four hundred feet high. There are easily several thousand sights in the western US better than the best sight in West Africa.

Starting to sound grumpy, am I? Well, as I trudged to the one hotel in town I became pleasantly surprised. Because although they didn't have electricity, they did have a pretty courtyard, flowering bushes, and well appointed, if totally dark, rooms.

As twilight turned to night I took a walk. And once again was pleasantly surprised. For here was a place that had never even had the electricity to miss. All was totally peaceful and quiet as I walked the sandy back streets, each block defined by sandy brown walls that hid family courtyards. At one point a battery run black and white tv drew a small crowd, but otherwise it was small wood fires and men chanting.

For once I was in a totally different world, rather than a really bad version of what I was trying to leave. West Africa did have some magic after all, even if for a moment. And I cherished the illusion that here, at least in the evening, people neither knew nor cared that they lived in the poorest country on Earth. I was taken back to a time when Life was something other than a function of economic statistics.

Kind of like back in the Fifties...


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